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I Used to be Normal
Still from "I Used to be Normal"Photography by Elisenda Russell

Meet the hardcore fangirls who ‘used to be normal’

They melt before their idols, and this documentary – backed by the Backstreet Boys – seeks to uncover what makes a fangirl

I have met and interviewed the Backstreet Boys and seen One Direction live on three separate occasions. While I never shrieked (audibly) when I came face to face with Niall Horan at an Easter party wearing an ostrich costume, I have definitely felt the pangs of being a Directioner, or a Belieber, or a Lovatic, or a Selenator… OK, the list is long; sue me.

Director Jessica Leski and producer Rita Walsh hope to debunk the phenomenon of fangirling in upcoming documentary I Used to be Normal. Currently in the home stretch of crowdfunding to finish the film, they’ve spoken to both girls and grown women who have at one point in time been moved to hysteria by their undying love for a boy band. From the Beatles to Bieber, girls (and boys) have glommed on to the transformative powers of belonging to a universal movement. Whether you roll your eyes at their mania or participate in it, this film will prove why there’s never been a wrong time to be a fangirl.

What was the reason to make this film?

Rita Walsh: Four years ago director Jessica Leski found herself unexpectedly falling for One Direction, and soon after that, she went online and discovered the amazing communities of 1D fangirls (and fanboys). When she told me she wanted to make a film about these fans, I remembered how I used to feel about the Backstreet Boys and then I was hooked on the idea as well. 

We hope to tell a story that hasn’t been seen before – one that shows the positive and creative things that can come from being a boy band fangirl – whatever the generation. Initially we just wanted to interview fangirls and hear their stories, but we’ve expanded now and interviewed a whole range of experts including music therapists, adolescent neurologists, educators, former boy band members and pop culture academics to try and understand the phenomenon.

If we reach our Kickstarter target this week and therefore get the chance to finish I Used to be Normal, we want to make a film that explores what is really going on for these fangirls, and discover the ways being a fan impacts their later adult lives.

What was the craziest story you came across?

Rita Walsh: We’ve interviewed fans who have been on the Backstreet Boys cruises and fans who create their own fan art full time. That level of commitment is fascinating. But what we found most crazy was learning about the adolescent brain from neurologists and psychologists. The teenage years have not been widely studied in the past and so there have been some really amazing discoveries only recently about just how much your brain transforms when you are a teenager. These changes drastically effect how intensely and passionately you feel towards everything in life – including music!

Another crazy story happened just this week – when the actual Backstreet Boys pledged to our Kickstarter and wrote a beautiful message of support for the project on our Kickstarter wall! We fangirled pretty hard then!

Why do you think these girls are so obsessed with these bands?

Rita Walsh: Have you looked at Harry Styles’ dimples? Or watched Nick Carter dance? There’s something about cute young men singing poppy tunes about love and romance that is obviously appealing to teenage girls at a time when the boys around them are just not as emotionally mature as they are. For many girls and women, loving a boy band is the first time they feel love and lust and it’s intense.  Go back and watch footage of the Beatles singing “Twist and Shout” at a concert in 1964. Oh my! How could you not to get a flutter of excitement?

Did anything happen while you were filming that you didn't expect?

Rita Walsh: Lots of things! That’s the magic of documentary filmmaking. We didn’t expect that falling in love with a boy band could have such interesting implications on fans’ later adult lives. We spoke to teachers who believe that kids who embrace their passions can make better students, so drawing pictures of yourself and NKOTB on your maths folder might actually be a good thing.

“We didn’t expect that falling in love with a boy band could have such interesting implications on fans’ later adult lives” – Rita Walsh, producer

Was any of it heartbreaking?

Rita Walsh: When you are a teenager, anything feels possible. There is a reason why girls felt like Robbie Williams might actually turn up at their house one day to serenade them, or that Paul McCartney might marry them and take them on tour with him. There’s something sad about growing up and having the realisation that this might not actually happen. The older you get the more often you are told to hold in your emotions. Watching these girls grow up in front of our camera you see them wrestle with this. Why does growing up have to mean you can’t scream and cry and get excited about things you feel passionately about?

Did you ever come across any guy fans?

Rita Walsh: For us 'fangirl' is a verb as well as a noun. And it’s not gender specific! Guy fangirls certainly exist and we’ve interviewed a few of them for the film. Anyone can take part in the act of ‘fangirling’. Having said that, we will probably focus mostly on the female fans. Female fans are most often dismissed as irrational or stupid. Why is it okay for a boy to obsessively love a football team, but if a girl talks about a band she loves in a similar way it’s viewed as trivial or ‘just a stage’? We want to challenge this notion.

How do you hope people respond to the film?

Rita Walsh: Firstly, if we get the chance to finish the film, we hope that fangirls will enjoy seeing a film about them that doesn’t make them feel patronised or alienated. We want them to able to point to the film and say: “That’s me and I’m proud of who I am.” Secondly, we also think wider society has a lot to learn from teenagers. We hope people will reconnect with their inner teenagers again after seeing the film and take the time to listen to the adolescents around them.

If you wish to donate to I Used to be Normal, visit their Kickstarter here